Mystery of the disappearing food carts

Namira Hossain explores the reasons behind the rapidly decreasing number of food carts from Dhaka’s streets

ex01We are all used to the fervour with which Dhakaites embrace and discard new trends. But food carts seem so synonymous with the 21st century lifestyle, that it is surprising that these carts are rapidly disappearing in numbers.
The past two years had seen the unprecedented rise of the food cart trend throughout the city which provided busy city dwellers with a smorgasbord of options to feast on while on the go. Even though street food has always existed, the novelty of having Italian, Chinese or even Jamaican Jerk on the streets of Dhaka was completely new for its’ inhabitants. As more eager young entrepreneurs took to the streets, food carts mushroomed up all over the city.
They now seem to have disappeared overnight in the blink of an eye, from most areas of the city, leaving in most cases only a faint memory of their existence. Just over a year ago, newspapers were writing about the rise of the food carts and claiming that they were going to put serious pressure on restaurant owners who would be forced to improve the quality of their establishments. This was hot on the trails of the Food Truck craze that is still going strong in the US. So what went wrong here?
Many things, as it turns out.
ex02For one, food carts are not recognised as a legal businesses and hence the young food cart owners who applied to the Dhaka City Corporation for trade licenses, got their requests turned down. So their ability to conduct business from their vehicles were left at the mercy of local mastaans, as well as police officers who hounded the small businesses for chanda.
Maiman Zaman, a 27-year-old entrepreneur and inventor of Awesome Burger, says, ‘I decided to get into this business mostly so I could share my love of food. There weren’t much profits but the investment and start up capital for both my partner and me was only one lakh takas. So it was not such a big risk. Any other business would require far more.’
Zaman, however, stated that he did not anticipate the kinds of hurdles he would be facing. ‘I realised after I was moved from my first location. I had to come to an arrangement with two Boro Bhais whom I had to pay Tk 4,000 to 5,000 per month to “watch over” my cart. I never paid the cops any money. Only in burgers, there were days when I fed at least 50 police officers. As you can imagine that cleaned out my supplies.’
Faria Samreen Nizam (28), Director of Kone Lifts and Escalators and owner of Cart Attack, shares a similar story. ex03Nizam shares, ‘Before we set up our cart, we tried to get a legal trade license and were turned down. We wanted to do everything legally and we wanted to pay our taxes as working citizens. But we were not allowed to do so. Nevertheless, we decided to go ahead with the cart but immediately we were faced with obstacles. Our first location was in Dhanmondi, but our cart did not survive there long as it was constantly hounded by local mastaans who pushed us out of the neighbourhood.’
The cart set up at its second location in Banani by the HSBC bank. ‘Here we knew we would be safe from the threats of the local mastaans as my father is an ex IG. However, it was the police that created more trouble for us, demanding food every day,’ she says.
‘We were a small business who set this up. So we could have a fun place to hang out with friends and eat some good food like we did in my college days. It just stopped being economical for us to carry on with the added burden of feeding the police officers,’ she adds.
ex04So the lack of laws and regulations are not surprising as ‘Food Truck’ owners in America faced similar struggles as the legal system was initially clueless on how to set up laws for something that had come up completely out of the blue. Food Truck owners throughout different cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago formed coalitions amongst themselves and then petitioned to their city councils for their trucks to be recognised as businesses and issued separate trade licenses.
Kazi Ahad Kader, a 26-year-old Bangladeshi US citizen and partner of Lone Star Samwiches in Houston, Texas shares his initial experiences, ‘A couple of other food truck owners and I led a delegation at City Hall and got these restrictions (mostly zoning) removed.’ They have been in operation since 2013 and Kader believes that the food cart industry in Bangladesh would benefit if the government recognised the food carts as small businesses and created regulations to fit the model.
ex05‘Bangladesh has a very young street food scene, the kind you see, like carts and all. The fuchka-wallahs never required these regulations, but this is a sub-industry which is growing within itself and with their increased popularity they would easily become subject to health and safety standards,’ says Kader to New Age Xtra.
The food cart owners in Bangladesh recognise the need for regulating the business and have suggestions for what kinds of laws would be helpful for everybody. Bobby, a 35-year-old partner of a specialty food cart that is no longer in business, shares, ‘If the government would allocate zones with times for parking so that we could conduct our business, it would be great and would not impeach on the traffic situation’.
Faria adds, ‘Health and safety regulations – maintaining hygiene is so important, and not something that should be compromised on. There are definitely cost-effective ways to maintain hygiene on food carts. And you can store the food at a separate location, and bring in fresh supplies when you need.’
ex06Zoning regulations indeed seem to be imperative for the survival of these carts, as the lack of allocated spaces creates divisions amongst those that have to share these public and private spaces. Bobby shares, ‘As food cart owners, you get battered on three sides – the police, the mastaans and the local community, who do not want to share the space.’
Fahad, who was also a partner at a popular food cart in the capital, shares his experience of being muscled out from a public space which he shared with other vendors including street hawkers. ‘My staff were harassed constantly because I refused to pay chanda for using a public space. If the DCC has not allotted the space, then everyone should be allowed to conduct their trade freely.’
In certain cities in the US, the rules for zoning restrict food trucks to be set up within 200 feet of any nearby restaurants, but the high population density in the capital would make this close to impossible.
Maiman Zaman, whose Awesome Burger Cart was placed right outside a well-known hotel in Dhaka, claims that the hotel created many issues for him, often calling in the police to have his cart removed. ‘They claimed that my cart created security problems for them. It became impossible for my cart to sustain itself with the constant harassment from the police due to pressure put on them by then.’
Aside from also creating new avenues for them and their friends to hang out in, these young entrepreneurs were also creating jobs and opportunities for others. Bobby says, ‘There is not much to do in Dhaka, so this industry gave a lot of youth who were fresh out of college a chance to be involved in something productive. While we were up and running, we also created so many opportunities for others. Not just the staff I hired, who may otherwise have been street vendors, also the small businesses such as those who provided us with recycled aluminium foil etc. We even fed these two stray dogs who were on our street.’
ex07Rakhal Chandra Burman, administrator of Dhaka North City Corporation informs New Age Xtra that a trade license for food carts is in the cards for the future. ‘It was in the process but we are now concentrating on the upcoming mayoral elections. We will resume working on this again once the elections are over.’
The success of the Food Trucks in the US has shown that in order for the food cart to survive in Bangladesh the onus is on the owners themselves to form a committee and take matters into their own hands. Otherwise this too is likely to get lost in the red tape. As these laws are developed, it will also be important for food cart owners to be truly innovative and create completely new recipes so that their carts are completely unique and not just serving up the usual dishes, for this industry to survive.